Originally written in April 2013
It is a popular belief among today’s generation that one doesn’t have any obligation towards the society over and above abiding the laws. These freedom-defenders demand that they should be free to live the way they like as long as they don’t break any law.
This raises the question: Is everything that is permitted by the law automatically morally good? I don’t think so.
Laws are not God-given and absolute but are created by man. To believe that every aspect of human life is addressed by the laws such that there is no scope for improvement is to be confident about human intelligence to the degree of arrogance. Human life is far too complex to be perfectly understood, and thus laws can’t be perfect. For this reason, laws are amended from time to time. New laws are added and many are even discarded when the time demands the change.
To say that there is no moral obligation beyond abiding the laws is to derive morality from laws. It is actually the other way around. Morality is the blueprint for laws. Though morality too is not absolute, but if we agree on the common human goals then morality becomes fairly objective. Human well-being and flourishing being the undisputed common pursuit of humanity, it gives us objective morality. Laws are created to keep the society on the moral path of fostering human well-being and flourishing. Laws are, therefore, based on morality.
All that is moral has to be legal. But all that is legal is not necessarily moral.
Practically, there is bound to be gap between laws and morality. As the society evolves and assumes new levels of complexities, new laws are required to keep the society on the moral path.
For example, a century ago there was no law requiring wearing a helmet for bike riders because there was no reason for it. Even when the bikes were invented, the helmets would not have been invented until the need was felt for them. Today there is need for the law requiring bike riders to wear a helmet. Many people clamor against it saying it is their own life that they are risking by not wearing a helmet, so the State has no right to compel them to wear a helmet. Wrong. It is not moral for people to risk even their own life, because when they meet with an accident they make other people’s (especially, their relatives’) life difficult, financially and/or emotionally. If they die in an accident, their children (in case they have any) fall into the society’s care and someone in the society pays the cost. (The person’s family is a part of the society.) Any action on one’s part which entails negative consequences for other members of the society falls under moral scrutiny. Whether or not we have a law against not wearing a helmet, moral argument for wearing one is pretty strong. Same goes for numerous other issues, from smoking cigarettes to owning guns.
Talk about environmental degradation. The rate at which we are destroying our environment urgently calls for numerous laws relating to carbon emission, waste disposal, and myriad related matters. We don’t need a law against owning a vehicle in order for the use of public transport to be a morally superior action. While I won’t go so far as to say that owning a vehicle is immoral, but if in time the environment is screwed enough then it may well become so.
At the time we pass a law against something is not when it becomes immoral. It is when something is identified to be morally harmful that calls for the law be passed against it. Besides, laws can be unfair too. Laws don’t even necessarily describe moral soundness of a particular action.
A law abiding person is not necessarily morally flawless. Understanding of morality and the awareness of one’s moral obligations has never been more important than today. If people start thinking that they have no duties apart from not breaking the laws, I can only imagine the chaos the future holds.